American university heads wave welcome sign for Israelis

College BDS campaigns notwithstanding, leaders in US higher education seek firmer ties with their sabra counterparts

Members of the Project Interchange University Presidents Seminar 2013 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Members of the Project Interchange University Presidents Seminar 2013 (photo credit: Courtesy)

Many Israelis believe that American campuses are hotbeds of anti-Israel activity. But on a visit to Israel — for some, their first — several US university presidents said that their campuses have no problem whatsoever with Israelis.

“If that kind of thing is going on, I haven’t seen it,” said Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, in a comment echoed by other top American university officials who came to Israel on a recent trip sponsored by Project Interchange.

Project Interchange is an educational program of the American Jewish Committee which brings opinion leaders and policy makers to Israel for a week of intensive travel and learning, giving them the opportunity to go beyond the headlines and get a sense of what Israel is really all about. Since its founding in 1982, the program has brought over 6,000 leaders in a wide variety of areas to learn about different aspects of Israel, with an annual trip specifically for university presidents.

As chancellor, McCall is responsible for nearly 78,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff at eight institutions across Texas. McCall, who was in Israel to build relations with Israeli institutions of higher learning, said that he already knew what to expect, more or less. “We all read the book ‘Start-Up Nation,’ so we are aware of the level of innovation in Israel,” he told The Times of Israel. “We met with groups at a number of universities and had preliminary talks about partnering with universities and programs.”

Among the things that most interested him, McCall said, was Israel’s work in water technology, something that his state could benefit from due to recent droughts. Digital forensics — analyzing digital information for use in criminal or civil cases — is another area McCall is interested in, since the Texas system he presides over includes Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas, which has a nationally-renowned criminal justice program that recently established a Center for Excellence in Digital Forensics.

One reason that Israel’s colleges and universities turn out talented graduates, McCall said, goes beyond what the institutions themselves do. “The students in Israel have strong drive and discipline, mostly because the majority of them have served in the IDF before going to college. They are older and have had already a lot of world experience,” unlike American students, who are still technically teenagers when they start college. “We would love to have Israeli students coming to Texas. The diversity they would bring would provide a good balance to our student body.”

Also impressed with Israeli students’ maturity and dedication was Sharon K. Hahs, president of Northeastern Illinois University. For here, the Project Interchange was an introduction to Israel — she has not been here before — and gave her an opportunity to see “behind the headlines.” While the political issues are complicated, one thing she can agree with is “the success of the Start-Up Nation. The spirit of innovation I saw here was amazing, and it’s not just innovation in science and technology, but in ways of doing things, approaches to problems, and much more.”

Hahs, too, would be very happy to set up a student exchange and other partnership program between her institution and Israeli schools. “The idea has been welcomed everywhere, and I intend to bring the proposals back to our board so we can make some decisions.”

Israeli students would be welcomed on her campus as well, she said. Northeastern Illinois University has an active BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction) movement, but Hahs is confident that would not be an issue. “There are voices of dissent and dialog on our campus, but Israel is not a major topic of debate,” she said, adding that the university had weathered several previous anti-Israel protests without incident, finding a way to bring students with diverse opinions together.

For Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of The Rockefeller University in New York, building relations with Israeli institutions is a great opportunity. “The Rockefeller University is strictly a graduate school, with many of our courses in the biomedical area, an area that Israel excels in.” Israel, he declared, is considered a world leader in the biomedical and biotechnology areas, so there are plenty of opportunities for his school to work with Israeli institutions.

Although many Israelis are not familiar with his institution’s work, Tessier-Lavigne said there had been “numerous interactions with Israeli students and professors, and now we want to formalize the relationship” by developing joint programs with Israeli institutions.

One of the big impetuses to The Rockefeller University’s seeking to develop joint programs with Israeli schools, said Tessier-Lavigne, was the establishment of a new high-tech campus by the Technion and Cornell University. “I think many institutions in New York City, including ours, will greatly benefit from the presence of this project here.”

Among the things that the NYC Tech Campus, as the project has been named, will include will be an applied research center for work in physics, math, and the applied sciences. “This is something that has been missing in New York until now, and it can set off a new wave of scientific research in the city,” said Tessier-Lavigne. His own institution, he said, will benefit from “the advanced instrumentation and engineering that will be used for many of the advanced research projects we are doing as well.”

The Technion-Cornell project is an excellent example of what academic cooperation can accomplish — and the reason why he and the other university leaders were in Israel in the first place. “No one lab or program has all the answers,” he said. “We need complementary strengths to succeed. When people interact using diverse skills to solve problems, it’s beneficial to everyone.”

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